Step right up: From the depths of the sea, it’s the amazing Deepstaria enigmatica
Surely no habitat on earth sends chills through the collective unconscious more than the deep sea. A recent viral video of the ‘cascade creature’ reminded millions of the enduring creepiness of the deep.
The video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-E-8_wDgN7c&feature=related) shows a shimmering and iridescent blanket-like creature filmed by a deep-sea research module. The being undulates and twists past the camera, at times getting close enough to make out a mesh-like hexagonal pattern.
The public reaction to this footage was predictable; calls of ‘monster’ and ‘undiscovered creature’ abounded across the web. However, as strange as this creature is it’s hardly undiscovered… in fact it was discovered 45 years ago!
When confronted with uncommon animals, the natural reaction is to find it monstrous. Body plans are often so foreign to us that it’s difficult to relate to what we’re seeing. However, for those with some knowledge of marine life this video is really not that perplexing at all.
It didn’t take the folks over at http://www.jellywatch.org/ very long to chime in with the answer. The ‘sheet’ is actually the flattened bell of a deep sea jelly, while the whitish coloured bits betray gonads and oral tentacles.
The culprit in this case is Deepstaria enigmatica, a seldom-observed but nonetheless well-known species first described in 1967. The morphological description of the species (http://species-identification.org/species.php?species_group=zsao&id=2434) even describes the network of gastrovascular canals (basically a branched gut) that make up the hexagonal pattern seen in the video.
It may seem strange that an organism so easily identified by researchers could equally easily obtain the status of ‘alien monster’ online. The phenomenon is similar to that frequently seen with ‘blobsters’, decomposing marine animals which wash up on beaches causing conspiracy theorists and self-styled ‘cryptozoologists’ to jump to incredible conclusions. Many photos of these and other ‘cryptids’ circulated on the internet are easily identified by those familiar with the appropriate branch of biology, yet they persist online as ‘proof’ of monsters among us.
For those unfamiliar with the entire families these animals belong to they do indeed look fairly alien. There’s also a certain thrill attached to the idea of finding something unknown. People will no doubt continue to be attracted to the monstrous, the cryptic and the undiscovered, sometimes to the point of ignoring the amazing animals we’ve already begun to get to know.
Take a look at the following video of well-known colonial sea organisms taken in Southern Australia. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EQGA_4BZ5s ). If I were to film some shaky footage of giant pyrosomes and upload it with no description, there’s a good chance that we would have another ‘monster’ on our hands in no time.
These animals are a reminder that we have a very limited chance to ever come in contact with 90% of the huge array of life on our planet. A look into nearly any branch of life on our planet beyond the typical familiar animals reveals incredible and surprising organisms. It’s a shame that they often need the monster brand before people take notice.